Matthew Remski - COVID Conspiracies and the Future of Yoga
We've been seeing all sorts of conspiracy theories posted online lately - from 5g causing coronavirus, to the Plandemic film and more. So we decided to have a chat with Matthew Remski. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, a writer and an activist. He has written extensively about cult dynamics in yoga, but recently he has turned his attention to the huge amount of conspiracy discourse that has been spread on Social Media lately.
As well as learning about some of the factors that feed into conspiracy discourse, we get Matthew's point of view on the future of the yoga industry post COVID-19.
Matthew's Website: http://matthewremski.com/
Article about Qanon: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/qanon-nothing-can-stop-what-is-coming/610567/
Conversation between Barbara Cecil & Dahr Jamail: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/last-born-in-the-wilderness-2/e/64642058
Earthrise Podcast conversation with Derek Beres, Julian Walker & Matthew Remski: https://www.earthrisepodcast.com/health/87-conspiracy-theories-cult-dynamics-with-matthew-remski-and-julian-walker/
This episode is sponsored by Yoga Australia:
The opinions expressed in this podcast do not reflect the view and opinions of the sponsor.
Click on a timecode to play from that time in the recording.3:38 How is Matthew coping in his personal life with COVID 19?
6:16 Matthew discusses his partner’s Masters in “eco grief”
9:46 How does Matthew see the yoga industry being affected by the pandemic?
19:03 Has Matthew noticed a shifting in priorities online in the yoga industry?
24:00 What is the definition of a cult?
27:24 Does Matthew see more people being drawn towards cults during this pandemic?
33:00 Please support us on Patreon!
33:56 Conspiracy discourse in the yoga and wellness communities
40:42 What is the best way to engage with people who are participating in conspiracy discourse?
46:50 How do you decide how involved to get when you have concerns for a friend who is involved in conspiracy discourse? How do you give them autonomy, practice self-care and be a good friend?
51:28 Does Matthew Remski see any positives coming out of our response to the pandemic?
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello. My name is Rane and this is the Flow Artists Podcast. Every episode, my co-host Jo Stewart and I interview inspiring movers, thinkers, and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. I recently saw a post in a local yoga Facebook group that was introduced with the following: “Please remember everything we hear is an opinion, everything we see is a perspective. Use your powerful mind, your consciousness, research, and detox.” This on its own sounds like a fairly reasonable suggestion and it's a take on the quote from Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” What caught my attention however is that the post led to a web page about how 5g causes coronavirus. Now, I'm not a scientist but I do understand that the current scientific consensus agrees that this is not the case. The post was, of course, what our guest, Matthew Remski, refers to as conspiracy discourse. Matthew Remski is a writer, therapist, and activist and I've been getting a lot out of what Matthew has to say about conspiracy discourse and why many in the yoga/wellness community seem to be particularly prone to sharing it. I've seen posts about David Icke, the Plandemic short film, and even about far right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon from people I genuinely respect and I find it really concerning. I won't go down the rabbit hole too much. I'll put links in the show notes, but, for example, David Icke is a conspiracy theorist that believes we're being ruled by a cabal of lizard people. He's a Holocaust denier and has promoted anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Now, is this someone we should be taking as a reliable source of information? I have to say though, I'm not looking down on anyone who believes or even shares conspiracy discourse, I get it. These are scary times, and as Matthew says in this interview, we have some reason not to trust some of our institutions. We're all looking for some comfort, some sort of control even. Maybe this episode is my way of looking for some sense of control in all of this chaos we're going through lately. Everything we hear is an opinion, that’s true but there is a point where we have to take things at face value, and sometimes, the truth is the thing we least want to hear. Now, before I get on to the interview, I did want to let you know that some of what Matthew has to say, particularly about the future of the yoga industry and the future of the planet might be hard to hear. It was hard for me to hear it when we spoke with him but I think this is an important discussion to have. I'd like to hear your opinions though. You can visit the Flow Artists podcast community on Facebook or email us at email@example.com. Jo and I would absolutely love to hear from you. This episode was brought to you by our sponsor, Yoga Australia, registering teachers and training courses to ensure that everyone in Australia has access to quality yoga teachers. I've gone on for far too long. Let's get into our conversation with Matthew Remski.
Matthew, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's so great to get the chance to talk with you again. Please feel free not to answer this if you don't want to but how has your personal situation changed since COVID 19?
Matthew Remski: The thing that is most impactful is that as the schools have closed, we're now homeschooling our two young boys and that's really rich, challenging, complex, and really sad in some ways and also very rewarding. Because I'm a writer, I naturally gravitate to trying to process some of that through writing. I started a project last fall on parenting in the shadow of climate collapse and so I'm sort of knee-deep into research on that and now this more acute circumstance which carries some of the same implications is overtaking the entire world. So on a personal level, it's just everything's gotten very close to home and close within the home. Then in my wider circle, I honestly can't really see what will be left of the yoga and wellness industry, especially in the private sector once this begins to resolve or if it begins to resolve. So I'm also thinking about, or I'm spending a lot of time staring out the window, wondering about how to reinvent my orientation towards the work that I've been doing over the last 15 years. I think pretty much everything has changed. What hasn't really changed is that I continue to live in a reasonably well-governed country and that's becoming, even more, an object of gratitude for me but also a little bit of shame and survivor's guilt when I am doing so much interaction with my American colleagues because it's so completely clear that they're living in a failed state and they really don't have any protection. So many people that I know who are successful at their professions don't even have health insurance and are desperately concerned about not getting ill themselves as well as trying to keep tabs on everything else that's happening in their country. So that's a little bit of a roundabout answer. I'm also trying to just focus more on local sources of resilience and creativity and I'm doing a lot more gardening even though it's a little bit cold in the season yet, but that's all getting going.
Jo Stewart: I read that your partner actually just completed their Ph.D. and their topic was eco-grief It’s interesting that you should mention resources close to home because it sounds like it's probably something that you've both talked about and both really support each other on.
Matthew: Yeah. Just to clarify, it wasn't a Ph.D. but like the equivalent of a master's degree that allows her to become licensed as a psychotherapist. But, yeah, she took up the question of eco grief as her concentration for the last year and a half of study so that's been an active conversation on our house for the last little while because, on a parallel track, my research into, or at least, my feeling my way into the topic of “how do you parent in the absence of the kind of aspirational hope that has governed parenting over millennia?” How do you do that? Our worlds have really meshed. There is psychotherapy on eco-anxiety, on eco grief but I wouldn't say that it's a broad discipline focus yet and I am really excited about the fact that my partner's work will contribute to that effort because the tendency within psychotherapy over the last century, I believe, mirrors the bias within self-improvement, development, and wellness industries which is really to focus upon how are you responding to circumstances and how can you find internal resourcing and so on. A lot of those answers just aren't really going to fly anymore, or at least, the individualized perspective of how are you going to shift your orientation towards circumstance, it's not going to have the legs that it used to.
Jo: Although we are still going to need tools to help us cope with this changing world that we live in.
Matthew: For sure, yeah. The tools are going to be personal and they're going to be intimate but they've also got to be sociological and they have to really look at the full range of circumstance, privilege, and how we find ourselves in relationship with each other. I guess I'm just really excited about any movement in therapy that moves towards looking at big pictures and that's what she's done so that's really cool.
Jo: So kind of a shift from individual well-being to collective well-being.
Matthew: Right. There are accessibility issues involved with that too and some of them are being picked at by the pandemic because as, at least, in this country and I think in many other places, as therapeutic meetings have now really gone online and people's disposable income has gone down, the whole process of the therapeutic meeting probably becomes or hopefully becomes more accessible both in terms of technology and also in terms of flexibility in payment so there might be a positive movement in there as well.
Jo: Yeah. A good friend of ours who's a psychologist recently posted on Facebook the stress that she was under when she was just seeing patient after patient having to cancel their sessions because they have no work or income now and how she was managing that as their therapist, her own anxiety and stress about the situation that we're in and also running a business and being responsible for the other people who worked with her income, it's a lot.
Matthew: Right. It is a lot, it is a lot.
Rane: I guess you touched on it a little bit earlier but how do you see this whole thing is affecting the yoga industry?
Matthew: I can speak from a North American perspective, I think things are different in Europe, but to the extent that the North American scene is really dominated by American political economy and sentiment and by the particular relationship, adversarial relationship that the yoga industry has with public health, I know 20 or 30 yoga studio owners that I either work with or I'm friends with—I used to own the yoga studio here in Toronto—and I can think of one proprietor who has the resources to be able to stick it out over a long-term closure and that's because the money comes from a bunch of different places. Over the last couple of days, I've received notice after notice, after notice of permanent closures of independent mid-sized studios and then just last week, YogaWorks New York City closed down all of its locations and gave a four-day announcement. I think the reality is that the gentrified retail space square footage of the contemporary urban yoga studio has been operating at a very, very thin margin for the last 10 years and it's only been able to do that on the basis of larger ticket products like trainings, celebrity workshops, yoga vacations, and stuff like that. Now, the vacations are out, the trainings, who's going to have the income to do them for one thing but also what industry are people going to be training themselves for, I think there's going to be a lot of uncertainty there but most of all, nobody's going to be able to cover the overhead of shuttering for 12 months, 18 months. There are discussions in the yoga studio owners’ Facebook group right now, mostly amongst Americans, about these moral decisions that everybody is facing about if they happen to live in a particular state where the lockdown is going to be relaxed or relief is said to be coming from lockdown procedures within the next couple of months. They're on their own with deciding whether they're going to open or not but even for the ones who are less conservative, less cautious, or are more libertarian and feel like, “Well, I should be able to do this and if people want to take the risk in order to practice yoga in this public space on my public space, then really it's their choice and we should all be free,” and so on and so forth. If that's the attitude that they take, I really wonder who's going to come back, how many more people are going to have less disposable income, how many more people are going to be agoraphobic or their OCD has gone through the roof. Even if the studio opens up, I'm wondering about attendance. In general, I think it all adds up to I don't really see how the brick-and-mortar studio is not forever changed, if not completely destroyed, by 18 months of lockdown. Let's remember too that 18 months is based upon the global distribution of a functional vaccine and that is a whole series of miracles with nothing going wrong in terms of a projection. I was just reading, from your own Australian Broadcasting Company website, the interview with the doctor who created or who was behind the HPV vaccine which took years and years to develop and he was explaining very calmly how, “Well, we've never actually produced a successful coronavirus vaccine anywhere in the world and these are the reasons why and so we're not exactly sure that it can happen.” Without some sort of a surety of protection against infection, I'm not sure how the public yoga space is going to recover because it's a space in which social distancing, even if it was practiced, is going to destroy the economy of the drop-in class. Drop-in classes work for urban studios economically to the extent that they fill and that means not six feet apart, it means two feet apart or three feet apart. It's like already with urban studios in gentrified neighborhoods that were just barely making their rent and their overhead just barely paying their teachers to enforce distancing guidelines for drop-in classes. The drop-in classes weren't profitable anyway in most cases. They were profitable to the extent that they were packed and so there are just so many factors that make the notion that, “Oh well, we'll come back or when this is all over, we'll get back to normal.” It's very, very doubtful to me. We have a precipitous pivot towards an online economy which I've noticed actually it's just taken a month for the glow to tarnish a little bit like in the first couple of weeks from I guess the third week of March onwards, there was this incredible rush of people doing Facebook live classes and trying to do their classes on Instagram and then there was a slow shift over to Zoom. There were a lot of teachers who seemed to be speaking very positively about the opportunity of not only reaching a wider audience but also keeping their community together. I've seen that—this is just anecdotal, I don't have data on it—but I've seen that language kind of decline very, very quickly and what I'm wondering is how sustainable the capacity for the studio that pivots immediately from brick-and-mortar to the virtual space is, how much power will those teachers and those studio brands have in relation to retaining the brick-and-mortar clientele. I think it's notable that YogaWorks, when it closed down in New York City, didn't even try to pivot to an online platform and maybe their calculation is that it's too much to organize, it's not worth it, the margins would be even smaller. Maybe they also assessed and if they did so, they would have reason to come up with this, that the virtual market was already too saturated, which is kind of like another issue when the brick-and-mortar space is closed down and everybody is forced online, who's going to retain their distinct clientele as teachers? There's going to be communities that absolutely depend upon the expertise in them and the mastery of their teacher for their niche market. But the generalized teacher of the Vinyasa flow class, they are entering an incredibly competitive and oversaturated virtual space. I don't know what's going to be left of it, I really don't know. It’s a little bit of a ramble but when people speak really positively about how things are going to pick up again or how they're retaining the spirit of community, I think it's really important to be able to distinguish between that as a prediction and that as part of the actual aspirational marketing of the business itself. It's really good to speak positively about your business when it's under stress, that's in your best interest until it's not, until you can't maintain it anymore. Trying to discern whether somebody has real cause for hope or an aspirational cause for hope is another part of the puzzle.
Jo: From a perspective of a studio owner who is now teaching online, some of the things that you're saying do really ring true, not just from an aspirational level but from personal experience. I have really felt like it has been a really good way to stay in touch with our community and one of the things that we're doing is working with our local council who I was already teaching community classes for and they're just paying us the same fee now to teach that class online to the community, like Rane's teaching a chair yoga class and I'm teaching a pretty accessible Pilates class, so that is another avenue. I've found that the community connectivity and just getting a lot of positive feedback from people is real, financially, it's not the same as teaching in-person classes, teaching online and in terms of energy expenditure, when I was teaching in person, I would regularly teach four or three classes a day and I could not imagine doing that with Zoom classes like after one, I need a break. Looking at all of those little screens and tuning in to all of those people in an electronic way when it's something that you're used to doing intuitively is a lot more mental energy. I guess we're in a bit of a different situation here in Australia which is very privileged because it does seem like our government is going to be able to give sole traders some income support so I guess we're in a little bit of a different situation here. Just to put it out there, have you noticed a shift in priorities emerging in the yoga industry from what you've seen online?
Matthew: I don't know. I think it's hard to suss out a shift in priorities when people are scrambling, their first priority is “how are we possibly going to make our first rent.” I published a blog fairly early on about the rush to online production and suggested that one of the things that might happen with this is that it will exacerbate the historical and ongoing problem of visual performance in yoga pedagogy. I think when you speak very poignantly about feeling exhausted at the end of one online class, I think that's part of what's going on is that the feeling of there being a two-way street in communicative sharing is really challenged by the technology. So the people that I spend the most time talking to and thinking about this stuff with—people like Theo Wildcroft and Jivana Heyman and others—we talk about our priorities with regard to trying to deepen, ground, and enrich the personal interaction of the technology and that means smaller class sizes or perhaps even individual meetings more than the group class shifted online. But that's an ongoing discussion about the meaning of teaching in modern yoga anyway so we've already swerved in that discussion for the last 10 years. One priority that I hope begins to shift, and again, this is speaking from a North American perspective, is that I really hope that yoga teachers in general and the organizations that support the industry become more sympathetic with, supportive of, and integrated with public health discourse because our entire discussion up to this point, except when you're talking about teaching your counsel classes, has been about what's happening to this particular discipline within the private sector. I think best case scenario is that if the brick-and-mortar private sector economy is irrevocably changed, or perhaps, even wiped out for the most part that everybody who still loves this art form and still loves this way of communicating presence and somatic intelligence and whatever that they look for ways of recreating that economy within the sphere of public health—and that's a movement that has already been embarked upon by people who participate in organizations like Yoga Service Council in the States where if you go to their conference in May which, of course, is cancelled this year, you meet basically everybody in North America and beyond who has left the private sector yoga world and felt a deeper calling towards providing yoga as a therapeutic or wellness service in the criminal justice system, in domestic violence shelters, in public schools, or hospital settings. I hope that the current lockdown makes a couple of things clear which is that the private sector yoga studio does not provide an “essential service” any more than the restaurant does or the nail salon does. We like to think of it as though it does. We like to suggest that the private yoga studio is somehow very culturally important but when push comes to shove, the virus says otherwise so if the product is wellness, if what we want to offer is health and well-being, mindfulness, and the capacity for people to have space to think about the big questions of their life, that may be re-understood as an essential service within the umbrella of public health and that's how maybe it should be paid for more and more. One of the things that I noticed happening as steam built behind organizations like Yoga Service Council—and I think Jivana Heyman’s Accessible Yoga is in similar territory—is that people are really starting to walk the walk around yoga being a service. And that if that's understood in terms of “how can I get paid for providing this service through popular consent? This is valuable, we all know that this is valuable so we're all going to pay into it,” if we can turn the conversation that way, I think that would be a very positive direction in terms of priorities.
Rane: Perhaps we could change the direction of the conversation a little bit. We know you've written a lot about cults and cult dynamics in yoga, I was just wondering, to start with, if you could perhaps define what a cult is?
Matthew: Yeah. There are a number of standard definitions in the literature. Michael Langone defines the cultic organization as a group that deceives its members in the public that creates a sense of dependence within its members and then also instills within its members a dread of leaving. Deception, dependence, dread of leaving. Steve Hassan describes the cultic organization as an organization that tries to control the behavior, the information access, the thoughts, and the emotions of the group member. Alexandra Stein says that the cultic organization is one that rewires a person's attachment strategies towards the disorganized so that they are in a perpetual state of trauma bonding with a charismatic leader. Cathleen Mann says that the four elements of the cultic organization are manipulation, indoctrination, negation of the individual self, and deception. There are a lot of different really concise definitions that come out of the literature and they're precise. They're not just concise, they're also particular. What I really love about the literature is that it helps to see social behaviors with real clarity. I think the word cult is often used in a very pop cultural way and there can be some value to that but it's actually a pretty precise term. That said, the definitions are also having to change, expand, and accept new information too. There's an emerging discourse now around "can the brick-and-mortar in real-life Ashram-based cult exist online?" for example, and that’s a subject of ongoing research. I think one of the main things that we want to know about cults is that the content that they preach, the mission that they promote is not the point. If Sivananda yoga says that what it really wants to do is promote health and happiness, that actually, in terms of a cultic analysis, can be the disguise or the ruse by which it attracts members. The cult that I was in that was run by a guy named Michael Roach was, on the surface, all about some sort of dedication to the promotion of a particular stream of Tibetan Buddhism. It comes out over the years that actually, that's not his primary interest at all because the behavior shows otherwise. The popular understanding is that cults have some religious nature to them or content but that's actually a misunderstanding. The religious content or nature of the cult is part of its deception. The cultic organization will use a religious argument, principle, aspiration, a political argument or mission, or a therapeutic premise or something like that, or even an ecological concern to disguise the fact that what it's really about is the manipulation and exploitation of its members.
Rane: I've read that in times of pandemic in the past that religiosity tends to rise. I was wondering if you think we'll see a tendency of people to move towards cults a little bit more or have you heard of any examples of this?
Matthew: I don't know enough about religious responses to pandemics in the past more than what we would get popularly from people's devotions increasing during times of plague or what-have-you. But I just want to underline the difference between religiosity per se and cultic dynamics and just say that the religious fervor that somebody might feel in response to a stressful situation doesn't necessarily translate into being drawn into or participating within cultic dynamics. That said, I think that my particular study of cultic dynamics in new religious movements or in New Age religions like modern yoga and modern Buddhism can be particularly instructive in times like this as we see eco-activists movements gain particular social capital and perhaps use some of the same tactics that previous organizations have used. One thing that happens during any crisis is that a lot more people become vulnerable and one of the things that a cult is really good at is in the weaponization of that vulnerability, the exploitation of that vulnerability. The cult is really, really good at providing an easy, fast, totalizing, resonant, poignant, and sometimes, initially therapeutic answer to the vulnerable person. I would say that as social stress increases, the possibility of cultic recruitment will also increase. Now, at the same time though, I have research questions that I can't answer about, “what will happen to the brick-and-mortar cult now that the doors are shuttered?” If a cultic organization has been dependent upon its residential setting for indoctrinating its members, if it has depended upon controlling members’ behavior from rising times to who's going to be able to have sex with who to what are you all going to eat and what time of day are you going to eat it, all of those methods of social control are really hard to enforce online. I think the whole landscape of cultic influences is in foment right now, there seems to be a lot of variables that are changing very quickly. Just like I don't know many yoga studios that are going to survive 18 months of closure, I can't think of a lot of brick-and-mortar land-based cultic organizations that are going to survive either unless they're hardcore survivalist or prepper organizations that have been prepared for that anyway. But when we're talking about, in my field, yoga and Buddhist cults that rely upon a steady influx of visitors of people doing karma yoga, of people going on retreats and intensives and stuff like that, when that flow of money and recruitment turns off, they're under the same economic pressures as everybody else. I think there's a lot of interesting changes going on and I think it's all up in the air really. But your basic question is “are we going to see a rise in cultic behavior?” I don't know about a rise overall, but I can see what I have started to wonder about is a shift in orientation and subject matter. One thing that I'm paying a lot of attention to is what is the health of the eco-activist organizations that are starting to gain more prominence. I don't know what's happening to extinction rebellion now that the pandemic has happened and their entire activist model was based upon civil disobedience that can't take place with social distancing, but I do know that there were some red flags waving around for me around that entire movement because I would go to meetings and it was clear that the leaders weren't telling the truth about certain bits of research that they were relying on or strategies that they were intending to employ. As soon as the leadership of an organization isn't entirely transparent with its membership about what it's doing or what it intends to do or why it's making its particular decisions or how it’s funded, then that first pillar of deception starts coming into play and then we can start looking for other things like are there a bunch of young people who now socially depend upon identification with this organization for meaning in life, will they dread leaving this organization if things get unbearable for them. I'm looking for a change in focus and also realizing that as more and more yoga and Buddhist cults fall apart, people who were in leadership positions in those organizations, they're going to be looking for work, they're going to be looking for other organizations, other communities to participate in. I think it's really good to look out for dynamics that translate from one organization to another or from one even concern to another. You don't want somebody in your eco-activist organization who has brought a whole bunch of Buddhist cults baggage from their 20 years in Shambhala International, that's something that has to be looked at right at the front door.
Rane: Hello. Rane here to talk about our Patreon page. Patreon is a way that you can help support the podcast for as little as US$1 a month. Higher tiers get access to extra special content as well as a listing on our website and a shout out on the podcast. Jo and I will be recording an addendum to some of our episodes in the future and we’ll be sharing some of our thoughts on this conversation because we definitely have some thoughts. Look out for that in the next week or so on our Patreon page at patreon.com/flowartistspodcast. All right, that's more than enough from me. Let's get back to our conversation with Matthew Remski.
You've been writing a lot lately about the rise of conspiracy theories and particularly, how they seem to be manifesting a lot in the yoga/wellness community, would you like to talk about that a little bit?
Matthew: I think the first thing that I'd want to say is just to make a distinction between the conspiracy theory and conspiracy discourse because similar to what I was suggesting about the cultic organization, the content of the theory, I don't think, is as important as what it actually does. I try to use the phrase conspiracy discourse now. I'm not saying that the specific claims that arise in social media feed around the relationship between 5g technology and COVID-19 or how the Rockefellers are beneath everything or how Tom Hanks is actually a Rockefeller that they don't carry their own social impacts. The notion that COVID-19 is actually a bioweapon designed in China has racist implications—and that's meaningful—I don't want to negate that. But at the same time, what I'm seeing, especially as people try to respond to this material, is a complete failure to recognize that it really isn't about facts. It's about attitudes, it's about emotions, it's about distrust. The theory itself is not that interesting. It's really more what conspiracy discourse is like and what it's like tends to have some of the characteristics of cultic dynamics without the behavioral control in the sense that there's a lot of black-and-white thinking, there's a lot of banding together to suggest that my group of people is particularly illuminated against the mass deception of consensus reality. I also want to be careful about othering people who become enmeshed in that discourse because one of the things that I've noticed is that there can be an overlap between those who have participated really strongly within other crises that have been labeled conspiracy theories such as network sexual abuse or institutional abuse. There are people who suggested that my work on cultic dynamics within Ashtanga yoga was the work of conspiracy theory. I want to point out that there's a type of revelation that has to break through into popular consciousness about injustice, about abuse, or about power imbalance that begins often from an intuitive standpoint, or if not an intuitive standpoint, from a highly subjective voice that says, “This is what happened to me and it's real.” To the extent that I've seen a lot of people within the yoga and wellness worlds become conversant within conspiracy discourse. There's this way in which—I hope I'm being as clear as I can about this, it's a very complicated idea—but there's a way in which the energy that allowed people to say, “Oh, there's something hidden within contemporary culture that we have to excavate,” that same energy, that same intuition, that same cultivation of personal memory, especially when one has been shut down or gaslighted over the years, that same thing, that same impulse and skill, I'm also hearing it in the voices of those who feel like the pandemic is simply generated through an oppressive regime or that we're not getting the whole truth. The thing that I hear in conspiracy discourse is a long history of people being disbelieved about their trauma or not heard and so I want to be really cognizant of that and bear witness to the sorrow of that as well. Maybe this is new for you to hear me say this because I haven't really articulated this in any of the writing that I've done about it but I've thought about it a lot about as it's continued to roll out that it's really, really important to recognize that conspiracy discourse carries with it a kind of wounding so I really want to pay more attention to that. At the same time, recognize that the claim that Bill Gates wants to microchip everybody is actually dangerous, it's physically dangerous to people to spread things that aren't true around. It's physically dangerous to tell people that viruses don't exist and that you can boost your immunity but the government doesn't want you to do that or Big Pharma doesn't want you to do that because then they wouldn't make any money. That crap is dangerous. I find it a very, very rich and mixed bag and it's filled with a lot of sorrow, especially in an American context. I know that people are burning down 5g towers in the UK, I don't know what's going on with that in Australia but specifically in an American context, I think it makes a lot of sense that the notion that your society, in general, is oppressive, predatory, and does not have your best interests in mind, that makes sense because that's actually true. Americans have every reason to be paranoid of their elected officials, of the predatory nature in which public health and its very possibility has been dismantled. There's also this feeling of conspiracy discourse coming out of the lone voice in the wilderness that is trying to survive by understanding something in a way that is secret and that nobody else has access to, there's that as well. It makes sense that Americans should distrust their government and should distrust their public health officials because what have they actually been given over the last 50 years except for the steady diet of “you're on your own, you’re on your own, you're on your own, screw you, you're on your own”?
Rane: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I'm wondering in this case, what do you think is the best way to engage with people who are participating in this discourse?
Matthew: I certainly think it's certainly clear that discussing facts and trading link dumps from various sources doesn't typically work. That's not like you can give somebody who is maybe, especially given the YouTube autoplay feature, is spiraling down some weird fringe rabbit-hole of information, it's not like you can give them a crash course in critical thinking and turn them around. I see a lot of well-meaning people trying to, “I'm going to try to talk sense to you,” and I'm going to, “Look, here's what the Imperial College in the UK says in this peer-reviewed report.” When there's fundamental distrust and the sense that one has been lied to about everything, then that's the primary wound. I don't think you're going to make headway, especially if you know the person with an argument about facts and data. This is where some of the literature around recovering from cults, I think is really, really useful. You don't tell the cult member, you don't present them with evidence and say, “Look how wrong you are. Look how abusive this leader is. Look how this essential oil company is totally scamming you,” you don't show them the numbers because the company, the leader, the organization, they have their own numbers, they have their own data, and they've been doing that very efficiently. But more than that, they've been fostering a series of attachments that feel very protective and safe to that person even though they're not. I would say that for the friend of the person who has gotten cotton up in conspiracy discourse and it doesn't look that they are connected with consensus reality anymore, that they might even be delusional, facts are not going to do it. The cult recovery literature says that you maintain the relationship primarily. By retaining the relationship, you remind the person that they can be listened to, that they can be given feelings of security, that they can have their feelings honored, that they can be heard. It's like if you see a friend who has gone down a conspiracy discourse addictive spiral wormhole, I think the first approach is, “Yeah, I'm really scared about all of this too.” One of the things that the cult recovery specialists talk about is that if you're the friend who remembers the person before they became delusional, before they became paranoid, before they became somebody who you don't recognize anymore, if you can remember that, you can hold that person in a kind of memory and you can let them be alive even when the person has dissociated from their former self. In my own experience, this was really powerfully played out when a friend of mine wrote to me after I had been in the cult of Michael Roach for about a couple of years and he said to me, “Look, I really miss you and I miss talking about X, Y, and Z with you. Maybe you have found something that's really interesting and really compelling for you and I hope you don't think that the rest of us who you left behind are somehow not worth your attention anymore because I really miss you and I really love you.” This was the most powerful moving letter that a person could receive. It's not like it snapped me out of it right away but it did reconnect me with a previous self that understood that I had a secure connection with this person and that secure connection was different from what was on offer from the cult. The thing about the relationships, these viral relationships that I think we can see building amongst people who trade the same paranoid link dumps back and forth with each other, is that those relationships are fragile. They're not sustainable, they're not in real-life relationships. I'm not an Internet researcher but my understanding about social media is that people gather together in kind of viral hordes based upon an assumed affinity with one another and while it seems like the conspiracy discourse blossoms up in groups, it's not like the connections between the people sharing those links are providing real nourishment. If you're the friend of somebody who's doing that, maybe you can provide real nourishment and maybe it won't be effective and maybe you won't see results from it right away. But the cult recovery literature says that these moments in which the person who knew your former self reminds you about that former self, that can be really super important.
Jo: This sounds like it relates that what you've been talking about makes a lot of sense, especially when someone is really deeply enmeshed. I and Rane have got a bit of a different perspective on someone on the internet is wrong. Do you think that, say, you did see a friend and you could see them kind of starting to go down that spiral, obviously the impulse is to pull them back out before they get too deep and sometimes, there's even a sense of responsibility that I should be doing more to help this person, how do you practice appropriate self-care and appropriate autonomy for that person to live their life while being a good friend? When do you step in? When do you pull back? How do you decide?
Matthew: That's such a great question. There's a difference between isolated online autoplay YouTube spiralling mental health stuff and being recruited by a group or somebody who's going to directly manipulate and exploit. I think the stakes are similar but your capacity to intervene is going to be different. It's so hard when you say, “I saw a friend starting to go this direction.” How much do we actually know from a person’s social media feed about how much time they're spending the particular rabbit hole? How much do we know about whether or not that's distracting them in real-life relationships? It's very hard to say. It really brings up the question of “how connected are we to the person?” That's a benchmark for me. It's actually hard for me to answer because as—whatever we call it—a content producer who relies on social media and a freelancer, I've got 5000 friends and 10,000 people who follow me on my author’s page but how many friends do I really have? Dunbar's number says that you probably can't have real interpersonal connections with more than 150 people and that feels about right to me. I don't know exactly in my life who that 150 people are but those are the 150 people who I am more inclined to reach out to, to intervene with, or if they post something about a particular religious leader who I know has cultic dynamics floating around them, that I'll reach out and I'll say, “Hey, I just want to let you know that I'm a little bit concerned about the community health around this person.” But with regard to my mental health, it's such a good question, I really don't know. I think mainly what I try to do is generally limit my exposure because I don't know what I'm going to see when I do expose myself and I feel really conflicted about unfriending people or blocking people who, say, are posting conspiracy discourse because I feel like I might have some kind of positive impact if I remain connected with them but I also know that it's not my responsibility and I can't be so grandiose as to think that I'm going to save people from David Icke or whatever and the lizard people theory. It's a really hard question. I guess my general strategy is just when I'm engaging with social media, I try to never ever, ever be passive that I'm doing it with some conscious objective that if I'm going to post something that I have this checklist that I run through, is this going to be useful and to whom, who am I going to piss off with this, and is that worth the social capital and to not be passive because I think it's the passive consumption of the newsfeed that is utterly overwhelming and demoralizing. I try to have an objective, execute the objective, interact positively with the people that I interact with, then leave it the fuck alone, and go out and garden as much as I can.
Jo: Great answer, thank you, because it was a real question and I really appreciate your perspective.
Matthew: Yeah, right. It's a really hard one, especially as we become oddly more dependent upon these platforms and that they become even more than they were before their own economy in the absence of a material economy. It's not like you can leave it alone when more and more of your socialization is confined to it.
Jo: And you work at the moment, yeah.
Matthew: Absolutely, absolutely. For so many of us, our work was dependent on in any way. It's a very privileged position to be in to say, “Well, I'm not going to engage in social media as though it's not part of the real world.” Hard question for sure.
Jo: I found that your answer was really helpful that I thank you.
Matthew: Oh, cool. Thank you.
Rane: This might be an unusual question but are there any positives you see emerging from this whole thing we're experiencing at the moment?
Matthew: My hope in a post-hope environment is that the pandemic lockdown is able to give us a microcosmic and acute perspective on climate disintegration, habitat loss, and everything that we need to absorb and reflect upon as we move forward. To me, that means being really careful around the impulse to dream about a better world because the climate data especially is punishingly, irrevocably bad, and in decline. It has been in decline in relation to and in tandem with an expansion of the neoliberal aspirational promise of a better life, a more organized life, or a more sustainable life. I'm hoping that for those who have the time to do a podcast like this, which is incredible, we're talking, you're in Australia, I'm in Canada but we're both talking because we're not out driving Instacart deliveries for grocery stores. I'm not even doing my shopping anymore and I'm paying somebody to do it—and sure enough, the person who shows up to do it is black—so for people who have the time to contemplate this stuff, I hope that we are able to recognize what a different world we are in than the one that's actually described to us by the fantasy of Western civilization. That sounds like a very grandiose statement but I really do think that it's that big. I would say that the person that I speak to most often who gives me the most insight into this is the journalist Dahr Jamail, who wrote the book “The End of Ice” and maybe I'll send you a link to a podcast that he did with his mentor Barbara Cecil.
Jo: That would be great. Thank you.
Matthew: What they talk about in that very moving hour and 20 minutes is the fact that every bit of the crisis environment that we're in seems to draw out a very predictable response which is “Well, let's re-envision a new world. Let's rebuild the way we think about X, Y, or Z, yoga culture, or what-have-you. I hope that we take the time to really feel the fact that there are many people who don't have the possibility to hope for a better future, that in a landscape of inevitable decline and of systems failure that we're going to have to dig deeper for something else for some other type of relationship to existence, some other type of, dare I say it, like spirituality that doesn't use hope to skip over the feeling of what we go through, that doesn't use the notion that things will get better to skate over the sorrow that we are feeling and should feel. If there's something good that comes out of a worldwide economic crash and hundreds of thousands of deaths and a weird disease that makes people drown on ventilators, if there's something good that comes out of that, it's an ownership of vulnerability that leads to some kind of humility in silence and an absolute refusal to say, “Okay, let's get on with it. Okay, let's get up and rebuild. Okay, let's get the pipeline moving again, or let's think about how we can create a sustainable oil economy,” or something like that. I hope that it confers a period of meditation for those who have the space to do that and that that meditation teaches that first old Indian principle of renunciation that we naturally have hopes, wishes, and dreams and we have a really startlingly attuned capacity to let our hopes, wishes, and dreams steer us away from a deeper connection with sorrow and what that brings, especially the risks that it brings like if I really take on the fact that what we've been doing as a culture doesn't work and can't work, it can't really be reformed, the models for green capitalism are not going to turn around the temperature increase fast enough, if we really take ownership over that, then what do we decide to do? How do we decide to think? How do we decide to love each other in the absence of business as usual or in the destruction of business as usual? Won’t we have to let business as usual really die, commit its own suicide? You asked about something good coming out of this, it's not something good but maybe it's something more lucid.
Jo: Maybe something necessary.
Rane: Thank you so much for speaking with us. I think there's a lot of stuff for us to mull over there, a lot to think about so thank you.
Matthew: Yeah. You're very welcome. And pardon me for sermonizing a little bit and thank you so much for asking the wonderful questions that you do. I hope you're both safe where you are. I know Australia looks like your government's doing better with this than they did with fires.
Jo: Yeah. Seems to be, yeah.
Matthew: It's weird because fires are more visible than viruses but you’d think that the entire country in flames would have provoked a more significant response. But I'm glad that you're in a better-governed country than some. Thank you for all the good work that you do.
Jo: Thank you so much.
Rane: Thank you. Yeah. Hope you and your family are safe and best for the future.
That was our conversation with Matthew Remski. As I mentioned at the start, some of it makes for sobering listening and I'd really like to hear your opinion. So reach out to us on our Facebook page or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For our next conversation, we'll be speaking with Cate Peterson. Cate is a yoga teacher, the creator of YogaHive, lover of yoga mats, and is committed to raising the voices of Indigenous Australians, especially within the yoga world. Cate is a passionate individual doing amazing work, so look out for that one in two weeks’ time.
Our theme song is “Baby Robots” by Ghostsoul and is used with permission. Get his music from ghostsoul.bandcamp.com. Jo and I would like to honor the hours of these wisdom traditions of yoga and mindfulness from India and Beyond as well as honoring the traditional custodians of the land where this podcast is recorded, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. Thank you so much for listening. Jo and I appreciate you spending your precious time with us. Arohanui. Big, big Love.